To learn something important about government leaks, go online and read the stories about the Valerie Plame Affair.
This was a scandal involving one of the most notorious leaks in U.S. history. The name of CIA covert operative Plame was released to the news media because her husband had written an op-ed article for the New York Times contradicting President George W. Bush’s assertion that Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium in Niger that could have allowed him to build a nuclear bomb.
It is mostly forgotten now, but that assertion was one of the key reasons given for invading Iraq in 2003.
It was false.
Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson, had been sent to Africa by the CIA to investigate the claim in 2002 before the Iraq War began. He reported back that it wasn’t true, but then heard the president tell the American public that Iraq had indeed purchased the uranium.
Wilson responded by writing an article in the New York Times headlined, “What I didn’t find in Africa.”
People inside the Bush administration didn’t like that. So they leaked the information that Wilson, who had been a special assistant on Africa to Bill Clinton, was dispatched to Niger at the recommendation of his wife, who had worked for the CIA. The implication was this was an attempt by Democrats to undermine the Republican administration and the CIA was somehow involved in the conspiracy.
There was outrage. Who within the government could have leaked this information? Who exposed a CIA operative jeopardizing the lives of both her sources and other agents? This was treason.
Then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the CIA leak investigation. His deputy attorney general, a fellow named James B. Comey (yes, the same guy who would become FBI director) acting in Ashcroft’s place appointed Patrick Fitzgerald special counsel in charge of the investigation (yes, the same guy who would become the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and eventually bring charges against Rod Blagojevich).
The Plame Affair reads like something out of a complicated spy novel.
There are claims that Wilson lied and didn’t find out anything definitive in his trip to Africa.
There are reports that a deputy secretary of state under Bush leaked the information about Plame to columnist Robert Novak in order to discredit Wilson.
A reporter for the New York Times was sent to prison for refusing to reveal her sources, but Novak, who first revealed Plame’s connection to the CIA, was not.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was found guilty of perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice.
But Libby was never charged with leaking information and Bush spared him prison time by commuting his sentence in 2007. It was a decision hailed by conservatives, who now drone on about the dangers posed by government employees who leak information to the news media.
And that’s why I mention all of this today. During congressional investigations allegedly designed to find out the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Republicans continue to focus on leaks damaging to the Trump administration.
There have always been leaks in government. Always will be. And many of them originate from government officials seeking to discredit critics, or destroy their rivals within the government.
The only thing learned from the Plame investigation is that our own government often churns out disinformation for public consumption, just as the Russians have done.
This country ought to be focusing on the Russians and how to stop them from meddling in future U.S. elections.
Chasing after leaks has proven to be a waste of time, money and resources.
If Fitzgerald has a different view, I would be happy to hear it.